Summary of Discussion on Black Book

Posted by Sarah

The discussion on Black Book ranged widely and encompassed: the film’s relationship to melodrama; the trope of the suffering woman; the family in melodrama; rhythm in melodrama and the film’s unending revelations of betrayals; the film’s characters Akkermans and Muntze; moral ambiguity; costume; women’s fluid identity/ies); melodrama and real life.

Black book Rachel Ellis sufferingWe began by isolating some of the elements which coincided with our understanding of melodrama. The continuous suffering of the main female character Rachel/Ellis (played by Carice van Houten) was especially noted. The group has commented on the suffering female(s) present in previous, and varied, screenings, including:  D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913), Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson 1940, George Cukor 1944), Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Black Book RachelEllis bombingThe film begins in 1950s Israel but soon a triggered memory causes it to flash back to Nazi-occupied Holland in 1944. At his time Jewish Rachel Stein is separated from her real family and finds shelter with a Christian family.  Her relatively quiet existence is soon shattered as her hiding place is bombed when she is out, presumably along with its inhabitants. Rachel’s real family has been hiding elsewhere but soon they are reunited. This might at first appear coincidental (another important melodramatic trope which is also present elsewhere in the film) but is in fact explained away by a mutual acquaintance (her father’s solicitor Smaal) being aware of Rachel’s plans and informing her family.  Almost immediately after the family reunion Rachel witnesses the slaughter of her mother, father and brother just when they, and other Jewish families, seemed on the road to freedom. After losing her surrogate family and home then, Rachel’s suffering is heightened, indeed overtaken, by the loss of her real family.

The family is often central to melodrama, and it is also the case here since it prompts Rachel’s later action, and she relives this particularly traumatic scene. On the first occasion this is implicit. In Rachel’s new, non-Jewish, identity of Ellis de Vries she has joined the Dutch resistance. These defend themselves against Nazi soldiers, gunning them down, and then stripping their bodies of useful uniforms. This reminds the viewer of the earlier scene since after the slaughter of the Jewish families the Nazi soldiers divest them of their jewellery.  The connection is reinforced as Rachel/Ellis can only stand by as a mute witness as both events occur.  Later on, a powerful reaction to again Black Book RachelEllisrelivingseeing the man who was responsible for Rachel/Ellis’ family’s slaughter is indicated not just physically (Rachel/Ellis runs to the cloakroom to vomit) but psychologically: the film provides a flashback of the earlier scene, from Rachel’s point of view.

Black Book RachelEllis and Muntze at stationRachel/Ellis’ suffering is not confined to these awful events, however. She suffers more as she witnesses some of her new friends being caught by the secret police. Rachel/Ellis also suffers conflict by falling in love with the high-ranking Nazi official, Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), she has been sent to spy on after meeting him, by chance, on a train and charming him. Tellingly the first scene of their lovemaking is accompanied not by a lush romantic score, but one more indicative of danger, danger Rachel/Ellis (and to an extent) Muntze, cannot for a moment disregard.  Rachel/Ellis later suffers as Muntze is arrested and sentenced to death, and she is imprisoned after a botched attempt to rescue him. Another Nazi official, Gunther Franken (played by Waldemar Kobus), inflicts further suffering as he leads stages a scene within the hearing  of a ‘secret’ microphone Ellis previously hid. This leads Rachel/Ellis’ friends to think she has betrayed them, and is a further level of suffering: others’ belief in her good character is taken from her.  Rachel/Ellis and Muntze later escape together, enjoy a few moments of rare  domestic bliss on a boat, but are captured after confronting Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal with suspicions of corruption. Franken’s destruction of Ellis’ good name has practical consequences too.  After peace has been declared she is rounded up with other traitors and detained, beaten and humiliated.  Finally she hears that her lover Muntze has been killed. This is tellingly the moment at which she actually lets her emotions out, collapsing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably and rhetorically asking ‘when does it end?’ Even the film’s conclusion, which returns to a time in the 1950s just after Rachel’s flashback has begun, follows the pattern of a momentary respite before suffering again intrudes. After a brief happy moment with her husband and children we can see that another war rages around them.

We thought that Rachel/Ellis’ continual suffering fitted Matt Buckley’s description of melodrama’s often relentless ‘rhythm’ when he gave a research talk the other week. Further relation to earlier theatrical melodrama, specifically Victorian, was suggested as the ‘Jerries’  were a force outside of the characters’ control, much like fate.  The film’s numerous false reveals of the person who betrayed the whereabouts of the Jewish families can also be seen to be connected to the notion of rhythm. First the ‘friendly’ secret policeman Van Gein is suspected. While he is indeed revealed to be working with the Nazis, he is not the traitor.  Next Rachel/Ellis’ father’s solicitor Smaal is accused. He and his wife are immediately killed however, with Muntze chasing after the offender, but only Black Book Rachel Ellis collapsesucceeding in being caught himself. Finally Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a Doctor and key resistance figure, is unmasked as the man responsible. He foolishly does this himself after attempting to kill Rachel/Ellis with an injection of insulin, but not waiting for it to take full effect.

The scene ends when Black Book RachelEllis crowd surfingRachel/Ellis manages to grasp some chocolate which rather ironically Akkermans had earlier given her and is able to reverse the effects of the insulin. She then, somewhat implausibly, escapes by rushing past Akkermans who is addressing the crowd from his balcony, and throwing herself into the mob below. (On a side note we also found the ambiguity of Rachel/Ellis’ motives here intriguing: was she bent on survival or destruction?) Nearer the film’s beginning Rachel/Ellis had told Akkermans that a friend of hers used to eat chocolate when he had over-injected with insulin. This is an example of the film’s fairly-heavy handed use of foreshadowing. Another key example occurs in relation to Akkermans. Earlier in the film Akkermans, to the delight of his resistance colleagues, mocks Hitler by donning a makeshift toothbrush moustache and speaking in a mock-German accent. Now he is indeed corrupted by power, with a very high opinion of himself, and is addressing the crowd as a leader might.

Akkermans is certainly a complex character. Some of  this is linked to narrative necessity –  he must appear one thing while actually being another, and do so convincingly as the film works its way through unmasking its variety of different ‘villains’.  This leads to perceived emotional complexity – has he always been corrupt, or been made corrupt through necessity and/or power? We found the character of Muntze more interesting, however. Although a high-ranking Nazi official he is even less the wholly bad villain of melodrama. Muntze is redeemed by the film in several ways. The first of these, which ties him closely to Rachel/Ellis, is that he too has been affected by the loss of his family. His wife and children were bombed by the British. The film also shows Muntze attempting to institute a ceasefire with the resistance. Furthermore, he does not betray Rachel/Ellis to the authorities when she confesses her true identity and purpose.

It was also commented upon that the actor playing the ‘nice’ Nazi Muntze (Sebastian Koch) was attractive, while the actor playing the ‘nasty’ Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) was less easy on the eye. This led to further discussion about the ambiguity of the film’s, and its characters’, morality. The way in which those thought to have betrayed their country by collaborating with the Nazis were treated – Rachel/Ellis’ and others’ humiliation – was lingered on by the film, rather than evaded. Some in the group wanted Rachel/Ellis and Gerben Kuipers (a resistance man who had lost his son because of Akkermans’ betrayal) to take the moral high ground after they had tracked him down. Instead, Rachel/Ellis used the point of her locket containing family pictures to screw down his coffin lid in order to suffocate him – a poetic revenge. Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers discuss the fact that they should let Akkermans live. Neither does, despiteBlack Book RachelEllis and Kuipers Rachel/Ellis’ earlier agreement with Smaal that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. One of them notes that Hans has gone quiet and we might presume he has died. It was thought that some uncertainty, however, allowed Rachel/Ellis and Kuipers some moral leeway.

Black Book RachelEllis red dressCostume also featured in our discussion. We questioned the historical accuracy of some of the outfits, especially the women’s.  However of more concern to us was the symbolism of the costumes. The floor-length leather coasts and jack boots which singled out the most high-ranking officers are especially iconic and were easy to identify. In most cases their presence immediately signalled a character’s loyalties and standing, though Muntze was an exception. Rachel/Ellis’s costumes were of particular interest. It was telling that a few in the group who had seen the film before had misremembered the colour of a dress Rachel/Ellis wears at one point. Rachel/Ellis leaves a party she is attending to crawl though the coal store and allow her comrades access to the Nazi’s underground prison. The dress she wears was remembered by some as being white, though it was in fact red. It was thought that this was because white is linked to notions of innocence and that is how we view Rachel/Ellis. The red dress of course has other connotations – to do with passion, desire and sex. This led to further discussion of women’s costumes. We especially noted that Rachel/Ellis and her fellow worker Ronnie use clothing as part of the wiles they rely on to survive from day to day. Rachel/Ellis’ decision to wear to work a see-through blouse which revealed her underwear highlighted this. We further noted the fluid identity of these two main female characters – they have to morph and adapt. Ronnie was very interesting in this regardBlack Book RachelEllis and Ronnie dance as she was revealed to be more scheming than we might have been anticipated: she affects Rachel/Ellis’ and Muntze’s joint escape from prison. We wanted to know more about her, especially as her presence in Israel and recognition of Rachel/Ellis sparked the film’s extended flash back. What was Ronnie’s story?

Whose story is the film based on?’ was another question we asked. The opening credits assert that it is ‘based on a true story’. The film’s many coincidences and revelations may make this seem unlikely. But it chimes again with Matt Buckley’s recent talk. In this he emphasised the increasing relevance of melodrama not just to art, but to lived modern experience.

Many thanks to Tamar for choosing this rich film, especially apt due to the School of Arts upcoming trip to Amsterdam.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts

John Mercer’s Magnificent Obsession talk

Posted by Sarah

We were fortunate on the 29th of September to host another fascinating talk by Dr John Mercer of Birmingham City University (http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer)

Prior to a screening of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), John spoke about the fact that the orthodox version of Hollywood history often depends on gossip and rumour.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionJohn subsequently challenged some misconceptions relating to Magnificent Obsession. These range from matters of reception to production. It has been claimed that it was populist trash primarily targeted at female audiences. It has also been the view that the 1935 film  the 1954 version was a remake of was obscure. Meanwhile it is often assumed that Producer Ross Hunter was more interested in the project than Sirk.

mag ob novel

The 1929 source novel by Lloyd C Douglas (see book cover, left) was one of that biggest selling of the  year. In  addition, a previous 1935 film adaptation featured the established and incredibly popular star Irene Dunne and the up and coming Robert Taylor and reaped enormous box office rewards. These three facts reveal that the narrative was in fact highly significant since it was very familiar to audiences.

 

It was pointed out that Hollywood had not abandoned the Magnificent Obsession  magnificent-obsessionnarrative in the almost twenty years between the first and second film versions. It was adapted for Lux radio in 1936 (with Dunne and Taylor), in 1940 (staring Claudette Colbert) and 1942 (starring Dunne). In addition, the sequel to the source novel was adapted for TV as a popular soap opera in the early 1950s.

John also noted the different ways in which stars are treated in the Film Studies. There are those who have always been present both in popular memory and film scholarship; those largely forgotten by the masses but who are in some ways recovered by film scholarship; those who are simply ignored. While Hudson might be said to belong to the first category, Jane Wyman, sadly, belongs to the last.

John provided a useful summary of Wyman’s career. Although beginning as a fairly light jane wymansecond lead she progressed to challenging roles. Significantly Wyman received a Best Actress Oscar in 1948 and was nominated a further 3 times (including for Magnificent Obsession). Wyman was clearly well thought of at the time despite Film Studies’ subsequent lack of interest in her. In relation to melodrama Wyman specialised in ‘dignified suffering’ and was a ‘model of femininity’.Wyman’s status as a star, and her importance to Magnificent Obsession, was highlighted by John’s discussion of the film’s finances. Wyman received a large proportion ($150,000) of the film’s ($780, 000) budget.

Rock Hudson

Hudson’s career was also outlined by John. Interestingly, while today many assume that the contemporaneous opinion of Hudson’s acting was less than complimentary, John’s research in fact reveals that this is not the case.

 

Discussion of Sirk focused on the prevalent view of him in Film Studies as a cynical intellectual auteur and the ruthless efficiency with which he manages the audience’s emotional responses.  The sheer lavishness of the costumes and the cinematography was also mentioned.

Foster Hirsch’s description of the actors’ performances in Magnificent Obsession as ‘hushed’ was also referenced. This seems particularly at odds with the general view of ‘melodramatic’ acting and will be of special interest to the group for the first 3 screening and discussion sessions of term  which focus on performance.

Many thanks to John for another insightful and enjoyable talk which has inspired us to consider screening not only Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) which also starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson but the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession….

Do, as always, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

REMINDER: Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

Doris Day ConfidentialJust  a quick reminder about the melodrama events that are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on Sunday the 29th of September. These are part of a Doris Day weekend to celebrate both the launch of Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s recently published book on the star (see picture, left), and to showcase Day’s versatility as a performer.

A screening of Pillow Talk (1959) will take place on Friday the 27th of Sept at 6pm.

A singalong version of Calamity Jane (1953) is being shown on Saturday the 28th of Sept at 2.30 pm.

Melodrama Events On the 29th of September:

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

 

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

 

 

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

 

Do join us for some or all of these wonderful Doris and/or Melodrama Events.

Melodrama Events at the University of Kent on Sun 29th of Sept

Posted by Sarah

A reminder that the following exciting melodrama events are taking place at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the University of Kent on the 29th of September.

The first focuses on Douglas Sirk’s film Magnificent Obsession (1954).

8 Events Magnificent Obsession11 am: There is a free 30 min talk on melodrama by Dr John Mercer, Film Studies, City Birmingham University http://www.bcu.ac.uk/pme/school-of-media/applying-to-us/our-staff/john-mercer

John is co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama : Genre, Style, Sensibility. London ; New York : Wallflower, 2004

11.30 am Magnificent Obsession screens.

The Gulbenkian website description of the film: “Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ spiritual novel of the same title, churlish playboy Bob Merrick becomes indirectly responsible for the death of a much loved local doctor when he foolishly wrecks his speed boat. In trying to make amends, he falls in love with the doctor’s widow and must remake his life in order to win her love.”

For further details and to book your ticket go to:

http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-magnificent-obsession.html

6.45pm: Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald of the University of Kent man who knew(http://www.kent.ac.uk/arts/staff-profiles/profiles/film/t_jeffers-mcdonald.html) will introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Man who Knew Too Much (1956). Tamar is the author of a forthcoming book on one of the stars of the film, Doris Day, and will speak about Doris’ darker films.

The Gulbenkian website’s description of the film:  “A family vacationing in Morocco accidentally stumble on to an assassination plot and the conspirators are determined to prevent them from interfering. Includes a 5-10 minute introduction”

For further details and to book your ticket go to: http://www.kent.ac.uk/gulbenkian/cinema/films/2013/september/2013-09-the-man-who-knew-too-much.html

Doris Day Confidential

To see more details of Tamar’s book Doris Day Confidential: Hollywood, Sex and Stardom go to: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Doris-Day-Confidential-Hollywood-Stardom/dp/1848855826/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378711364&sr=8-1&keywords=doris+day+confidential

 

Reflections on the Last Academic Year

Posted by Sarah

It would be useful to draw together some of our group’s activities and discussion on melodrama over the last 9 months. I’ve added my own thoughts below which ended up being far more fulsome than originally intended!), but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to include your ideas. It would be great if people provided their own overviews, or a detailed focus on an element (such as the definition of melodrama or a specific film) which especially interested them.

8 Events Magnificent ObsessionWe were very fortunate to begin the academic year with a Research Seminar at which Birmingham School of Media’s Dr John Mercer (co-author, with Martin Shingler, of Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, 2004) presented. John’s talk ‘Acting and Behaving Like a Man: Rock Hudson’s Performance Style’ focused on Hudson’s ‘behaving’ in several Douglas Sirk melodramas:  Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). This provided us with some great insights into probably the most referenced Hollywood director of film melodramas as well as underlining the close relationship between melodrama and performance.

11 Events Tea & Sympathy Beach

 

Nottingham Trent University’s Dr Gary Needham also presented at a fascinating Research Seminar. In ‘Revisiting Tea and Sympathy (1956): Minnelli, Hollywood, Homosexuality’. Gary, like John, explored the work of specific Hollywood director associated with melodrama: in this case Vincente Minnelli. Gary’s work interestingly opened up debate on gender relations and sexuality with a sensitive re-reading of Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy.

In our fortnightly meetings since January we have broadened out from this focus on 1950s Hollywood melodrama. We have screened a surprisingly wide variety of films with connections to melodrama, which hailed from France, Britain, the US, and Hong Kong and stretched from the silent cinema of the 1900s to contemporary film of the 2000s. We have also organised a very enjoyable and useful read through of a play.

We started with debate on the male melodrama by referencing Steve Neale’s reconsideration of melodrama in ‘Melo Talk’.  Neale argued that unlike the 1970s The Narrow Marginfeminists who wrote on melodrama in relation to the ‘women’s film’, trade press from Hollywood’s Studio Era was more likely to attach the term ‘melodrama’ to films with male-focused themes, such as film noir. Viewing Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952) which was hailed at its time of release as a ‘Suspense Melodrama’ allowed us to engage with Neale’s argument in a practical as well as theoretical way.

son of the SheikBut melodrama is more usually thought of as being related to suffering.  The American Film Institute defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm). In keeping with this, we screened George Melford’s The Sheik (1921). The Sheik and the next film, Robert Z. Leonard’s The The DivorceeDivorcee (1930), were more closely related to traditional notions of melodrama focused on by feminists in the 1970s. Both of these centred on melodramatic plots and had suffering women at their hearts. Though the earlier film presented events in a more melodramatic way, partly due to the type of acting which is thought to predominate in the silent era.

Our screening of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) opened out our discussion to animation. Once more the melodramatic plot was in place, though we did note that the use of comedy tempered the melodramatic elements.

snow white 1

 

Gaslight UKShowing two versions of Gaslight – the British film directed1 Welcome Gaslight by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the Hollywood remake helmed by Gorge Cukor in 1944 – allowed us to compare examples from two major film industries. In terms of melodrama the same, or at least a similar, story being told in different ways was especially illuminating. The plot underpinning both is melodramatic, but the polished approach of Hollywood was strikingly different to the ‘blood and thunder’ uppermost in Dickinson’s film. The Gothic subgenre of these films also provided much discussion.

Love on the Dole 2Weekly activities in the Summer Term provided us with scope to show more, and some longer, films. We began with John Baxter’s Love on the Dole (1941) which fascinatingly combined a melodramatic plot with the aesthetics of social realism. Its unusual, downbeat, approach was highlighted by the films we screened the following week: George Melies’ Barbe-Bleu (1901), D.W. Griffiths’ The Mothering Heart (1913) and Lois Weber’s The Mothering HeartSuspense (1913). Showing some very early short melodramas by French and American film pioneers George enabled us to directly compare films from cinema’s earlier days, afforded us the opportunity of watching the work of a female director which seems apt given melodrama’s usual focus on the female, and provoked thoughts regarding the use of suspense and restraint.

Poltergeist 2The screening of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) turned the group’s attention to horror. This provided us with an opportunity to assess the way melodrama works with, and amongst, other related genres. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Happy Together tangoTogether (1997) proved to be another surprising, but interesting choice for discussion. The clearly melodramatic plot concerning two young lovers’ trials was presented, at times, in a documentary style. This was thought to be revealing of melodrama’s inherent variety.

A read-through of Frederick and Walter Melville’s 1903 play A Girl’s Cross Roads returned us to more traditional notions of melodrama. The plot and the performances (at least when ‘performed’ by us!) were certainly over the top, with suffering central to the play.

16 Links The Girl who Lost her Character

Our most recent screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) proved very useful as it was a thoughtful meditation on melodrama especially in its parodying of the genre and Hollywood films of the 1950s.

In addition to our screenings and the read through we have been contacted by the BFI who are staging an event about melodrama in 2015. They intend to screen 50 unmissable melodramas. We compiled our own list of 50 unmissable melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/the-bfi-and-50-unmissable-melodramas/) which we had reduced from the longer list of 225 titles (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2013/03/03/unmissable-melodramas-the-long-list/) We are currently working through (and adding to!) these. We also plan to widen out further from film melodrama by engaging with theatre, television and radio(see the next post on Summer Activities for more information).

The Melodrama Research Group is busy working on several events: a screening of Midnight Lace (1960) in September, a forthcoming Symposium, a Festival, a Trip and is looking into Publishing Opportunities.